Litigation Privilege Protects Client’s Statement That His Former Lawyer Was a Liar, Thief, and “No Good Drunk”

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Privilege (pd)Anyone who has practiced law for any period of time likely has a story about a misdirected email. You know, the one you meant to send to a client or a colleague, but it went to your adversary or your supervising partner instead. These situations often just result in mild to moderate awkwardness around the office, but they sometimes create bigger problems. MacNaughton v. Harmelech, a recent decision from the Appellate Division, involved the latter. But it also involved the litigation privilege, something I wrote about just a few weeks back. (What Do eBay, The "40 Year Old Virgin," And The Litigation Privilege Have In Common?). And, fortunately for defendant, the statements in his misdirected email were protected by that privilege.

In MacNaughton, plaintiff, a New Jersey lawyer, represented defendant in a lawsuit involving defendant's company. Defendant disputed plaintiff's bill and plaintiff eventually sued defendant over the bill. At some point during the litigation, the trial court asked the parties whether they were interested in mediation. Around the same time, however, plaintiff was "in contact with another of defendant's creditors about banding together to force defendant into involuntary bankruptcy." As you might expect, when defendant learned about plaintiff's efforts, it colored his decision about whether to agree to mediation. In fact, defendant sent the following email, reprinted exactly as it appeared in the Appellate Division's decision, to his lawyers on the subject:

Please I Am asking you to file a paper in the state court there WILL NOT BE AGREE NOT TO BE A MEDIATION MACNAUGHTON CALL TODAY AND ASK HIM TO TRY TO POT ME IN IN VALENTRY BANKRUPTCY AS YOU SEE HE IS A. LIAR THIEF AND NO GOOD DRUNK

NO TO BE TRUSTED THANKS

Unfortunately, defendant also copied plaintiff on this email. Upon receiving it, plaintiff filed a one-count complaint for defamation. The trial court held a hearing on whether the statements were protected under the litigation privilege. After taking testimony from defendant and his current counsel, the court applied the four-factor test from Hawkins v. Harris, and held that they were. As a result, plaintiff's claim was dismissed. Plaintiff appealed.  

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What Do eBay, The “40 Year-Old Virgin,” And The Litigation Privilege Have In Common?

 by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Jonah hillNot much, but please keep reading.

In the movie, the 40-Year-Old-Virgin, an almost unrecognizable Jonah Hill has a very small, but funny, part. He plays a customer at the “We Sell Your Stuff On Ebay” store, which is owned by Steve Carell’s character’s love interest, played by Catherine Keener. According to IMDB.com, Hills plays “Ebay Customer,” who is, to say the least, having trouble understanding how the store works. He wants to buy some "wonderful" shoes that he found at the store. Keener's character explains that she does not actually sell any of the items in her store at the store, she sells them on eBay. Hill's character just doesn't get it, eventually telling Keener's character that he just wanted to buy the shoes and take them home, but that she was "making it extremely difficult" for him to do so.

The recent Appellate Division decision, XCalibur Communications v. Karcich, involved a dispute over the sale of the plaintiff’s merchandise on eBay. No word on whether any of those sales involved shoes like the ones Hill’s character was looking to buy, but the decision helps clarify the scope of the litigation privilege, which is broader than many people think. 

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Take It Outside: Club Not Responsible For Injuries When Fight Spilled Into Parking Lot

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Roadhouse (pd)You don't need to be James Dalton to know that bar fights are scary. (If you don't know who James Dalton is, however, you do need to go watch Road House.) Bar fights can also create legal problems for bar owners. For example, do bar owners have a duty to keep their patrons safe from harm caused by fights? In Lloyd v. Underpass Enterprises, Inc. t/a The Harem, the Appellate Division dealt with this issue in the context of a somewhat unusual situation — a fight between two people that started in the club but ended up outside the club, and injured an individual who was not one of the combatants.

In Lloyd, plaintiff was playing "poker tournament style" in a hotel room with some co-workers, including Cecil George. After the game, they decided to visit a gentleman's club. George invited a friend, who had not been at the poker game, to join them at the club. About an hour after arriving, plaintiff saw George fighting with someone who "may have been" the friend George invited to the club. The club's bouncers broke up the fight, "escorted George and the other combatant outside to the parking lot," and then waited near the club's entrance. Plaintiff followed them out. The Appellate Division described what happened next:

[Plaintiff] was standing near George when he saw the other combatant rushing quickly, looking "menacing and  coming  at  [them] with  intent." [Plaintiff] stepped in between George and the person  rushing at them to "put  [him]self  as  a  barrier  between  [the other combatant] and [George]." [Plaintiff] stated  "[e]verything  happened  quickly." He awoke four days later in the hospital, having sustained a serious head injury.

Plaintiff sued the club. The club moved for summary judgment, and the trial court granted its motion. Plaintiff appealed, but the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's decision.

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Field of Bad Dreams?

by:  Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)

Field of Dreams (PD)
In Field of Dreams, James Earl Jones's character makes a famous speech about baseball being "the one constant through all the years." While "America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers," and has been "erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again . . . baseball has marked the time." In D.W. v. L.W., the Law Division started its opinion with a less poetic, but more ominous baseball-related statement: "This case involves separated parents, young children, and Little League baseball." If you have been to more than a few youth sporting events, you can probably guess what was at issue in the case. Nonetheless, the court's opinion is a good read as it is part homage to little league baseball and part framework for how parents should (and should not) behave at youth sporting events.

In D.W., a husband and wife's child played in a "coach-pitch league." Although they were separated, they agreed that they could both attend the games as long as the husband stayed at least 50 feet from the wife. A few months later, the husband filed a follow-up motion to attend their son's football games. The wife opposed the motion and further asked the court to ban the husband from continuing to attend their son's baseball games because he had "acted inappropriately at the baseball field, in a publicly embarrassing manner, by making negative and demeaning comments about the team coach's baseball-related decisions, within earshot of the coach's wife." She further claimed that the couple's daughter later started repeating the husband's comments, and that the husband had posted similar commentary about the coach on Facebook. The husband denied that he acted inappropriately, and further claimed that it was his wife "who, at least previously, did not approve of the coach's baseball-related abilities." (As an aside, how many "baseball-related decisions" does a coach really make in a 7-year-old's coach-pitch game?)

The court began its opinion by emphasizing the importance of youth sports in America. More than 40 years ago, the Appellate Division recognized that little league baseball was a "piece of public Americana." It has been almost universally praised as a "social and cultural tool for positive childhood development and inclusion." According to the court, the benefits of little league baseball go beyond "simply teaching children to hit, field and catch," but include developing "good citizenship, sportsmanship, and maturity of character." In fact, the court took judicial notice that "the results of particular Little League games are not nearly as significant as the underlying goal of developing a child's ongoing personal character in a positive fashion."

 

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Condo Association Not Immune From Liability For Slip-And-Fall On Its Private Sidewalk

Shovel (PD)The latest chapter in the "can I be sued if someone slips and falls on the sidewalk in front of my house after it snows" saga has been written. In Qian v. Toll Brothers Inc., the New Jersey Supreme Court held that a condominium association was responsible for clearing snow and ice from the private sidewalks that it controlled, and therefore could be liable for injuries caused by its failure to do so. 

The general law on this issue is well-settled. Historically, no property owners had a duty to maintain the sidewalks on property that abutted public streets, but this changed in the early 1980’s, when the New Jersey Supreme Court imposed such a duty on commercial property owners, but not residential property owners. Therefore, commercial property owners are required to remove snow and/or ice from the sidewalks abutting their property, but residential property owners are not.

In practice, however, the law has proven easier to state than apply. What about situations involving property that is both residential and commercial (click here for more on that)? Or, situations where the injured party is a tenant who is injured on the landlord's property (click here for more on that)? Or, situations where the property is in foreclosure (click here for more on that)? Or, the issue in Qian, situations where the property is a condominium or common-interest community?

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